Annually thousands of women are traded illegal to European cities and put to work having sex with men. A young Nigerian named Jewel who had expected to become a carer, in due course managed to escape thanks to two chance meetings.
“I just saw light. It’s very often dark where I come from because there’s no electricity… But everything here was just blinking – it was very beautiful.”
Jewel – not her real name – is narrating her appearance in Denmark.
“I was thanking God for the opportunity to be in this country. I was looking forward to starting work.”
Jewel caught a flight from Nigeria with the hope that she was going to work with old people.
“People who get trafficked go through Libya and usually take buses and boats. But this was so well organised that it wasn’t suspicious at all,” she declared.
The International Organisation for Migration has roughly calculated 80% of Nigerian women being transported overland, then intending to cross the Mediterranean, are traded illegally into the European sex market. Jewel was aware of women who had encountered that fate after making the dangerous journey, so when her journey began at Lagos airport, she was reassured.
In Copenhagen, she was attended by a Nigerian woman, who took her the next day to Vesterbro, Copenhagen’s red light district precisely.
“I was looking around for some sort of hospital,” Jewel recounted.
They walked the streets for a a period of time, Jewel being told to take note of her environment.
Then the woman released unexpected, surprising and unpleasant bombshell.
“She said, ‘This is where you’re going to be working.’ I looked round to see if she was pointing at a building I hadn’t noticed. But no – she meant where we’d been walking. That’s when she told me I was going to be a prostitute, and this was where I’d be hunting for customers. Then the whole of Denmark just crashed down on me…”
Jewel had one unexpected meeting that night that would later be vital – Michelle Mildwater from HopeNow, an NGO assisting trafficked people in Denmark, spotted the tiny, nervous, 20-something woman and gave her a card with a contact number on it.
Jewel’s Nigerian head woman – her “madam” – told her not to belief this English woman with a bike. Then she swiftly secure Jewel her first customer.
“The man gave her 4,000 kroner (£450 / $620) to take me home, and then my madam just walked away,” says Jewel.
“He drove me for what seemed like forever. I didn’t speak the language at the time and I had no idea what he was saying – we had to use Google Translate to communicate. It was scary.”
In the following months, sex selling did not become any unchallenged for Jewel.
“I wasn’t good at it. I was that shy one in the corner. But I always got found because the regulars know when a new person arrives, and they wanted a piece of the new person.”
In the most current statistics released by the EU, over 14,000 trafficking sufferers were officially recorded in 2017/2018 – yet this will be the tip of the iceberg, since they represent only recognized cases. Half were from outside the EU, and Nigeria one of the top five nationalities.
Sexual slavery persists to be the main purpose of trafficking, as stated by the European Commission, and just in a single year the criminal revenues acquired from it are roughly calculated at a deeply shocking 14bn euros (£12bn / $16bn).
The women who obtain this money are told they are indebted to their traffickers huge sums for travel and accommodation.
“They are debt-bonded,” says Sine Plambech, a senior researcher in the Department of Migration at the Danish Institute for International Studies.
“Nigerians are one of the migrant sex worker groups with the highest debt. It could be between 10,000 and 60,000 euros. And when you have that kind of debt, you need to make a lot of money fast. And if you don’t have papers that allow you to work, the fastest way to earn money is in the sex industry.”
Jewel’s traffickers stated she would have to pay them 42,000 euros, in a well organized installments. To emphasize their point they ordered her to a terrifying meeting in a cemetery, the day before she flew out of Nigeria.
“I was forced to take an oath that I was going to pay the money no matter what, and that I was not going to reveal who trafficked me. If I did, so many bad things were going to happen to me and my family.”
On one occasion Jewel was in Denmark, the traffickers threatened her family in Nigeria.
“People just came into the house and they wanted my grandmother to talk to me about not having any ideas about reporting them to the police, or not paying the money. So every time I called her, she was always crying on the phone and reminding me that I had made this deal with these people – I had to pay or something would happen to them.”
Jewel was under huge pressure so did not feel she could be discerning about the clients she overhauled inside and between parked cars on the streets of Vesterbro,as well as in their homes.
“You cannot say no. You have to say yes, because there are 10 or 15 other women looking at that same guy wanting to make some money that night,” she says.
Yet going with a customer to his home could be enormously risky.
“I could have died that night I was forced to remain in the bathtub,”
she recounted, still traumatized.
“The man I had to go home with asked me to get in the bathtub. And I thought, ‘OK – he wants me to clean up or something.’ Then he went out and came back with two buckets of ice. And he started pouring this ice on me in the bath. And I was in there naked and it’s in the middle of winter…”
‘Impunity of perpetrators’
In April this year, declaring a new plan of action to fight human trafficking, the European Commission acknowledged that 10 years of attempts to deal with the problem had to a great extent failed.
“The impunity of perpetrators in the EU persists, and the numbers of prosecutions and convictions of traffickers remain low,” it said, making trafficking “a low-risk and high-profit crime”.
Efforts to reduce demand for the services of exploited victims had also fail totally, the Commission added.
The UK government declares that in the year to March 2020 police recorded 7,779 modern slavery crimes (including labor exploitation and sexual exploitation),Yet less than 250 people were prosecuted in 2019.
The UK’s support services for casualties of modern slavery are run by the Salvation Army. It states 610 non-British survivors of sexual abuse joined its program in the year to June 2021
Vesterbro’s main street, Istedgade, with its bars, clubs and sex shops, is rowdy and brightly lit on a Saturday night. a number of men, frequently unsteady on their feet from the effects of alcohol, prowl up and down. The women selling sex – many of them from Nigeria and Eastern Europe, their hair and make-up perfectly clean – are dressed in figure-hugging, comfy gym gear. They sport trainers you can run in – there are few pairs of high heels, and no stereotypical “sexy” attires.
Michelle Mildwater, who has assisted foreign sex workers in Denmark for more than a period of ten years, still does the rounds here – giving out her card to women like Jewel, giving help and professional assistance and guidance. She is very aware how dangerous street life is, and recalls a number of violent occurrences in one of the district’s hotels.
“We had a number of rapes in there,” she says. “There were times when a woman ran out with blood all over her.”
At weekends, Danish NGOs run services for the women selling sex. One, Reden International, has a café where they can cease work or movement in order to relax, recuperate and get a snack between clients.As well as in one of the side streets, a group of foster-parents host a harm reduction initiative like no other.
It is named the Red Van, since that is what it is – a vehicle with a bed in the back lit by fairy lights, and a prepared supply of condoms and wipes. It is a personal space where sex workers can bring a client as an alternative of going somewhere potentially unsafe. All through the night, a stable stream of women arrive – men in tow – to use the van’s facilities, meanwhile the volunteers stand a respectful distance away but close enough to hear if a woman is in danger. It may be used up to 28 times in a four-hour shift.
Among the Red Van’s volunteers is Sine Plambech, the academic researcher.
“These women have a problem they’re trying to solve – debt, poverty, family, children. They need to work. They’re going to sell sex whether we like it or not, so we provide a safe space for them while they’re doing what they would do anyway,” she says.
“Most women wouldn’t sell sex if they didn’t have to. You can have all these moral ideas about what’s good for them, but they need to make money.”
Or browse other episodes of Assignment on the BBC World Service
Buying and selling sex in Denmark is not unlawful, Still you do need a work permit. The uncertain migration status of some of the women selling sex in Copenhagen makes them more endangered – and far less likely to report any abuse or brutality against them to the police.
Denmark’s policy is to repatriate irregular migrants.Despite the possibility that women are identified as victims of human trafficking, they are anticipated to return to their home countries after a short period in a government-sponsored safe house.
Subsequent to four months on the streets, desperate, depressed and tempted to take her own life, Jewel too was hesitant to report to the authorities. She still had a huge debt, and was afraid for her security and that of her family in Nigeria.
At that point her life changed. It sounds corny – like a fairy-tale even – Yet Jewel met a Danish man and fell in love. On their first date, after a lovey-dovey meal, she told him everything.
“That’s a burden he’s had to carry,”
she says now about the man who is now her husband.
Jewel ceased working on the streets, and he assisted her make her weekly repayments to her madam. Still the couple needed counseling. Did Jewel know anyone who could help them, her boyfriend inquired?
Jewel remembered she had kept the card Michelle Mildwater had given her that first night she sold sex in Vesterbro.
Michelle counselled Jewel, assisted her to challenge her demons, and gave her the conviction to stop paying her madam. And luckily, there have been no violent consequences for her or her family – possibly because her trafficker did not belong to one of the huge transnational criminal networks.
Right now Jewel is expecting the outcome of her application to remain in Denmark. Meanwhile, her Danish has become fluent and she has had a baby. Jewel and Michelle have become solid friends. And when Jewel got married, the NGO worker from HopeNow was her Best Woman.
“That’s one of the proudest moments of my life – that someone walked me down the aisle, and it was Michelle who did that,” says Jewel.
Jewel desire one day she will go to business school. She also intent to do voluntary work assisting women on the streets.
Shortly before lock-down, Michelle Mildwater, who is a former actor, supported Jewel to develop a play – the narrative of a trafficked woman – and present it for an audience in Copenhagen. Jewel name it The Only Way Out Is Through.
“That was therapy. When I was doing the show I was kind of… out of my body. It was like I was part of the audience, and I was very touched by what I saw,” Jewel says.
“Because this is not just a story – this is people’s reality.”
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